At times during 2015, Michael Pineda appeared as a true ace. He maintained a 2.72 ERA through his first seven starts of the year, and after striking out 16 Orioles on May 10th, many considered Pineda to be the star of the Yankees staff. Yet, he finished the year with just a 90 ERA+ in 160.1 innings. By Baseball Reference, Pineda was worth only 1.7 wins above replacement, a paltry sum for a potential ace. However, Pineda's 3.34 FIP and 2.95 xFIP suggested that his middling numbers belied far better performance. After an uneven season, it is fair to ask; how much of Pineda's inconsistencies can be chalked up to bad luck?
At first glance, Pineda appears as perhaps the unluckiest pitcher in baseball. Looking at BABIP, Pineda's figure of .332 ranked sixth highest among starters with at least 150 innings. Among the same subset of pitchers, Pineda also posted the ninth highest home run to fly ball ratio, at 14.7%. His strand rate was also quite low, with his 68.6 LOB% ranking as the tenth worst in baseball. In essence, Pineda saw an abnormally high number of balls in play fall in for hits, saw a large swath of fly balls sail over the fence for home runs, and stranded very few runners on the base paths.
It's uncommon to rate so poorly across so many metrics that are often influenced by luck the way Pineda did in 2015. Only one other pitcher ranked among the top 10 in MLB in both BABIP and HR/FB ratio while also posting a bottom ten strand rate. That pitcher was Red Sox starter Rick Porcello, a player well-known for his tendency to post strong peripherals, but underwhelming results. In New York's own rotation, Nathan Eovaldi had a sky high BABIP, but benefited from a below average 7.8% HR/FB rate. Masahiro Tanaka had one of the highest HR/FB ratios in the majors, but enjoyed a .242 BABIP.
So, can we conclude Pineda was just snake-bitten in 2015, the victim of unusually poor luck across the board? His aforementioned BABIP, HR/FB, and LOB% all seem far out of line when compared to the overall numbers he's compiled during his (admittedly brief) career. Even after last season, Pineda's career BABIP is a palatable .284. His HR/FB ratio and LOB% are close to league average for his career, at 10.1% and 70.7%, respectively. It's not hard to look at Pineda's season as just an aberration. Regression to the mean in the categories most easily affected by chance, coupled with continued excellence in the strikeout-to-walk department, would surely lead to future success for Pineda.
Unfortunately, this view is too simplistic. It's too easy to look at Pineda's seemingly unlucky numbers and conclude that poor fortune was all to blame. In this case, a deeper dig into Pineda's performance reveals some troubling indicators. His batted ball profile, for instance, is far more mediocre than his shiny peripherals. Among those 89 starters with at least 150 innings pitched, Pineda's hard-hit percentage was 29th highest, according to Fangraphs. His soft-hit percentage of 17.8% was the among the 30 worst in the league. It's tempting to look at Pineda's BABIP and assume he was unlucky, but some of his trouble with balls in play was almost certainly due to his tendency to yield hard-hit balls at an above-average rate.
The same logic applies to Pineda's HR/FB ratio. While he probably was at least somewhat unlucky to see 14.7% of his fly balls leave the park, some of the blame for that inflated rate must fall at Pineda's own feet. Consider this graphic of the home runs Pineda yielded in 2015, provided by ESPN's Home Run Tracker:
Pineda surrendered 21 home runs in 2015, and 17 still would have flown out of Marlins Park, perhaps the most difficult stadium in which to hit dingers. The same result would have occurred at other vast ballparks, such as San Francisco's AT&T Park, or Los Angeles' Angel Stadium. Even if Pineda had played in those pitcher-friendly parks, his HR/FB ratio would still have stood at an above average 11.9%. Luck, and the quirks of calling Yankee Stadium home, seem insufficient to fully explain Pineda's problems with the home run.
Pineda also seems to struggle with men on base. With the bases empty, Pineda was stingy in 2015, yielding only a .260/.288/.406 opposing slash line. That inflated to .296/.324/.530 with men on base, and an unsightly .302/.341/.575 with men in scoring position. His career splits show a similar trend, as he has allowed an opposing wOBA of .268 with the bases empty in his career, compared to a .324 mark with men on base, and a .336 figure with men in scoring position. The sample sizes are small, and there surely is some random variance at play here. It's very possible Pineda will post more impressive numbers with men on base in the coming season, posting a higher strand rate in the process. Still, it's worth keeping an eye on moving forward to see if Pineda continues to shoot himself in the foot with runners on base.
When looking at Pineda, it's easy to concoct two opposing theories. On one hand, he could be incredibly unlucky, with a BABIP and a HR/FB ratio sure to plummet in the near future. On the other, we have a pitcher with a propensity for allowing hard-contact, who can only blame himself for the poor results he sees once the ball has been put in play. In reality, the truth is probably somewhere in between. Pineda surely is a better pitcher than his 4.37 ERA in 2015 showed, but probably not quite the ace his 2.95 xFIP suggested. Indeed, projections see Pineda settling in as a solidly above-average pitcher. Should Pineda's performance fall somewhere in the middle ground, there won't be much to complain about from a Yankee fan's perspective.